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Andy Rowell: Remember Saro-Wiwa

Remember Saro-Wiwa

By Andy Rowell
15 March 2005

The dissident Czech novelist Milan Kundera once wrote that “the struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. The powerful stay in power whilst those who seek to confront it rise and fall. Someone who makes the news today quickly becomes yesterday’s forgotten hero, nothing more than a footnote in a history book

It will not be so for one remarkable man that I knew, worked with and who died for his struggle. A man who died for his people. On the 10th November 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa, the author and Nigerian rights activist was murdered by the Nigerian military after a trial condemned as “judicial murder”. He was murdered because of his campaign against the oil giant Shell and to ask for a greater share of the oil wealth that had been drilled from under his homeland.

This year sees the tenth Anniversary of his death. Now a group of individuals, writers, human rights and environmental organisations are coming together to remember Saro-Wiwa and his life. To make sure that his struggle will not be forgotten. On the 22 of March, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston will launch a living memorial dedicated to Saro-Wiwa. It is a project designed to prevent the erasure of memory.

Why, you might ask, do you bother remembering someone who died ten years ago? The world, you might say, is a radically different place. Better to move on than remember. Much has happened in those ten years. Millions have died, millions been born. We are in a new century that has already had its own horrors that will haunt new generations for years to come. We have witnessed the tragedy of September 11th. We have watched in horror at the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the wider war on terror. We wonder which country a rampant and dangerous American President Bush with his ever-eager poodle Blair, will attack next.

But whilst the world moves on, something s stay the same. Many of the issues that Saro-Wiwa fought for are as relevant today as they were when he died. The communities of the Niger Delta remain locked into a cycle of extreme poverty, widespread unemployment, environmental pollution, social injustice and rampant corruption that has increasingly manifested itself in violent conflict. Wider problems related to oil such as climate change have worsened over the last ten years, as well.

Nigeria is not alone. An academic report commissioned by Oxfam America has found that developing countries that rely heavily on oil suffer higher rates of poverty, child mortality, child malnutrition that countries without oil. They also have low spending on health; low enrollment rates in schools; low rates of adult literacy and suffer high rates of corruption and military spending.

The report, written by Michael Ross, Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles found that “ most oil-dependent states are in the Middle East and Africa. An initial inspection of these countries suggests they are not performing well: the World Bank classifies six of the world’s 25 most oil-dependent states, as “highly-indebted poor countries” the most troubled category of states”.

Nigeria is, of course, in that list. The oil comes from the vast Niger Delta, one of the most endangered delta’s in the world and home for 6 million people. In the middle is Ogoniland, a small region of 400 square miles. It is where Shell first produced oil in 1958. It was also Saro-Wiwa’s home.

Saro-Wiwa was primarily an author, and the creator of Nigeria’s best TV soap opera, but also a businessman. But as Shell grew rich from the profits of oil pumped from under Ogoni, the people lived in poverty. Over the years over $30 billion worth of oil was drilled from under their land. But the Ogoni still lacked clean water, sanitation; schools; electricity, roads. They suffered from routine pollution spilling from the oil-pipelines that criss-crossed their land and that corroded rapidly in the tropical heat and humidity.

The oil polluted their drinking water. Shell flared gas close to their villages. According to Professor Claude Ake who was a former UN advisor in Nigeria: “Flaring of gas is constant. There are flares all over the place. It is night and day pollution. It is unthinkable that such a thing would happen in Britain”.

By 1993 the Ogoni had had enough. On 4th January 300,000 Ogoni – over half the population demonstrated against Shell. That day remains the largest-ever peaceful demonstration against the oil industry ever. It has become known as Ogoni day and is celebrated ever since. That year Saro-Wiwa became the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Saro-Wiwa personified hope for his people. As the protests against Shell drew strength so the backlash wrought on them intensified. As more and more people heard about the Ogoni campaign internationally the more the risks to Saro-Wiwa’s personal safety increased. Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders were routinely arrested that year, on one occasion being charged with unlawful assembly, and “seditious intention”. He had a heart attack in prison, having been subject, in his words, to “psychological torture”.

As Saro-Wiwa’s health deteriorated, so did the situation in Ogoniland as rival tribes attacked their land in vigilante attacks that were being coordinated by the military. Reports of extra-judicial killings and detentions surfaced.

In May 1994 a leaked memo from the brutal military commander in the region noted that “ Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence”. To counter this, the commander recommended: “Wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings making constant military presence justifiable”.

Saro-Wiwa, commenting on the military memos said simply: “This is it -- they are going to arrest us all and execute us. All for Shell”. His chilling prediction would later come true.

In the next few months the military set out to “sanitize Ogoni”, where soldiers systematically shot, looted, tortured and raped their way through the region. Women and children as young as fourteen were raped. People arrested were subject to “life-threatening” dehumanising conditions,

Then Saro-Wiwa was arrested for a crime he did not commit. He was again tortured and put in leg irons. Whilst in prison Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP were awarded the Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was given for Saro-Wiwa’s “exemplary and selfless courage and in striving non-violently for the civil, economic and environmental rights of his people.”

Before Saro-Wiwa’s trial began, Saro-Wiwa's brother, Owens Wiwa, secretly met with Brian Anderson, the head of Shell Nigeria to explore ways of securing his release. Anderson told Owens that “He would be able to help us get Ken freed if we stopped the protest campaign abroad”. But the protests continued.

During his sham trial Saro-Wiwa wrote: “I am like Ogoni, battered, bruised, brutalised, bloodied and almost buried. There is no doubt the authorities want me to die, I have caused them too much trouble in my struggle for the Ogoni people”. The two chief prosecution witnesses signed affidavits to say that they had been bribed by Shell and the others to testify against Saro-Wiwa. Shell, of course, denies these allegations strongly.

Life does move on, but we also have to recognise that in remembering the past we can shape the future. In the ten years since Saro-Wiwa’s death, I have often thought of my friend in times of need. I have read his poetry looking for inspiration. In the dark days before his death I used to wonder how anyone could take on the might of a corrupt military regime and the might of the oil industry and win. But Ken was never frightened. Or if he was he did not show it. The struggle cost Ken his life. He stood tall and proud to the end. His last words before being executed were: “Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues”.

Ten years on we still have to make sure Ken did not die in vain. His struggle reminds us that we have to stand up and fight against injustice. We have to fight corrupted politicians and powerful corporations whose vested interests are not those of the people. It reminds us to look behind the veil of “corporate social responsibility” and see that the oil industry has not changed, even though it says it has. It reminds us about the plight of the people of the Niger Delta, where innocent blood is again being spilled by the military. It reminds us about how, as a society, we have to rid ourselves of the poisoned chalice that is our oil addiction.

It reminds us to stand up and fight for a better world. Saro-Wiwa once said that “the writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society's weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future”. How true he was.


Andy Rowell is a renowned freelance journalist, who has been researching and writing on the PR industry for over a decade. You can read some of this work on Andy's website.

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